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Tito Puente's Timbales

AP Photo / Kevork Djansezian

Tito Puente's Timbales

On the 90th anniversary of his birth, we remember Latin jazz legend Tito Puente, “El Rey de los Timbales.”

If it weren't for Tito Puente, the world outside Cuba may never have known about the timbales. The small, versatile drums – descendants of the orchestral timpani and cousins to the bongo – were Puente's signature instrument, and he brought their sweet sound to a mid-century America ready to be dazzled by the exotic rhythms of Afro-Cuban music.

Most of us would be hard pressed to name another well-known timbales player, and that’s due in large part to Puente’s incredible talent. He was such a virtuoso on the drums that no one else could hold a candle to him, thus his nickname – "El Rey [The King] de los Timbales."

Though the instrument is Cuban in origin, Puente wasn't (though many fans understandably may have thought him to be). Puente was in fact Puerto Rican, born and raised in New York City.

In case you're still having trouble remembering the name of Puente's signature instrument, Puente and his friend Elmo cleared it up on a memorable Sesame Street guest appearance.

Tito Puente died in 2000 at age 77. But he still is – and always will be – El Rey de los Timbales.